One of the most popular stories of all time, Pinocchio has long been an object of fascination for directors. The idea of creating a creature from raw materials, and one day hoping it could live and breathe in the world, is certainly appealing. Not only did 2022 feature a horrendous remake from Disney, but recent Best Picture-winning director Guillermo Del Toro cashed in on the ability to make his own version. Releasing on Netflix, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio features technological breakthroughs, sincere storytelling, and emotional heartbreak. In other words, it’s another masterpiece from Del Toro and a massive win for Netflix’s animation team.
At the end of World War I, a father and son head into town. Carlo (Gregory Mann) accompanies his woodworking father, Geppetto (David Bradley), to build a crucifix for the local church. However, when planes release their bombs to conserve gas for a trip home, Carlo is killed. In the years that follow, Geppetto watches a tree blossom over his son’s grave. One night, he chops down the tree and builds a humanoid puppet, unaware the tree is inhabited by Cricket (Ewan McGreggor). That night, a Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) brings the puppet to life, naming him Pinocchio (Mann). With Cricket as his conscious, Pinocchio makes his way into the world.
Del Toro works with a handful of new collaborators, and the results are undeniable. He co-directs the film with Mark Gustafson (Fantastic Mr. Fox), and the two capture some of the smoothest stop-motion ever put on film. Their imagination is rarely limited, and as a result, the animation itself pushes the boundaries of stop-motion. Co-writer Patrick McHale (Adventure Time/Over the Garden Wall) helps to bridge the gap between the absurd and traditional animation subjects.
The film never rests on the Pinocchio story made famous by Disney. Instead, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio embraces the darkness of Italy in the 1930s, including the rise of fascism and Mussolini (voiced by Tom Kenny). Storywise, this adds a layer of relevant political commentary to a film focused on the gift of finding someone who loves you. This simple truth makes for a powerful emotional punch, especially in the back half of the film. Yet Guillermo and Gustafson pack the film with the odd mechanics and behaviors of a wooden boy. Letting the contortionist puppet embrace its inherent awkward nature also helps sell the magical realism of a story featuring dozens of rebirths and deaths.
This is where Guillermo’s team does some of their best work, crafting beautiful production designs for the world around our hero. The sets vacillate between the Ocean, a small town, a puppet show, and the afterlife, bringing stunning detail to life in each world. The visuals complement the superb costumes for the characters, an underappreciated aspect of most stop-motion features.
The craft does not end there. Alexandre Desplat scores the film, exclusively using wood instruments to showcase his musical prowess. He also contributes original songs to the film, adding soft but heartfelt ballads to helps draw in younger crowds. The sound is crisp and creative, constructing unique soundscapes for war, a puppet theater, and the belly of a monster.
The stellar vocal performances of Mann and Bradley sweep us away. Mann’s childlike innocence comes flying off the page, making Pinocchio an absurdly sympathetic character. Meanwhile, Bradley’s Geppetto belongs in the conversation for the finest performance of 2022. His pure heartache and anger at the world emanates from his voice in every line reading. Yet when he begins softening for Pinocchio, you hear the fear of suffering loss once more. It’s a stunning performance, and Bradley drives the emotional core of the film as a result.
As Del Toro unfolds his story, he clarifies one thing: he does not want to know how Pinocchio becomes a real boy. Instead, he wants us to focus on the here and now. The idea of life passing us by while we search for our darkest desires becomes a warning sign. We need to love the ones with us now, not wallow in grief for those who are gone. We will always carry them with us, sometimes literally. As a result, Del Toro pulls at our heartstrings to tell a grandiose but deeply personal story.